“Andrew Jackson, Fred Douglass, and Honest Abe walk into a bar …”

Trump in Ames

T.J. Stiles won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in history for his book Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America.” In an op-ed published today at the Los Angeles Times he has a few things to say about Donald Trump’s abuse of American history.

Here is a taste:

Whenever President Trump talks about American history, it sounds like he’s telling a joke. “Andrew Jackson, Fred Douglass, and Honest Abe walk into a bar …” The punch line is he’s not joking.

Does it matter? Granted, he may not realize that Frederick Douglass is retired and then some; he seems to have discovered only in 2016 that Lincoln belonged to the party of Lincoln; and he attributes his own ignorance to everyone else (“People don’t ask the question, why was there the Civil War?“). Still, plenty of other issues demand our attention. Newt Gingrich dismisses the criticism, telling the New York Times, “There’s a certain amount of hunting for ‘what is it that Trump has done that’s dumb?'” Fair enough. Barack Obama and George W. Bush both mangled the past on occasion. “Trump is learning history as he governs,” Gingrich added — on the job, like a kid on the soft-serve machine at a Dairy Queen.

One obvious problem with Gingrich’s defense is that a president does not perform merely mechanical tasks. We entrust that person with the making of history — a job that requires a grasp of both historical content and the historical method. The president and historian alike live in a world of everything. Nothing lies beyond consideration. Every event, every matter of concern, swirls and bobs in a sea of trends, traditions, accidents, choices, costs, attitudes and beliefs. The ability to understand connections, interactions and unintended consequences is crucial.

Read the rest here.

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